Grow more food for thought

2 November 2011

Food for thought: data. Raw data, that is. Of anything and everything.

Think tanks in many developing countries are victims of their governments’ (and often colluding donors and equally misbehaving NGOs) hoarding of public data (of all sorts) thus dramatically limiting researchers capacity to work (to think, in other words).

When I was working in Peru in the late 1990s and early 2000s I remembered that to get any sort of data we had to call civil servants, send them letters, and, sometimes, beg them for it. Now, all it takes is access to the web. The National Institute of Statistics publishes quite a lot of data (and the data sources) for anyone to download and use.

Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) is a champion of this approach (and the Tory government in the UK has responded, somewhat, to the challenge).

I was in Zambia earlier in the year looking at how to support think tanks and strengthen the public policy debate. One of the main barriers for researchers to make a difference, I was told, is the absence of data. Household, living standards, health, demographic, etc. surveys are ‘owned’ by the government and rarely made public. Reports are written and published by the databases remain hidden somewhere within the state apparatus. Little, if anything, is shared, unless it has been previously approved. This is not unique to Zambia of course.

A researcher I was working with did get a hold of some data (of population density in key cities in Zambia) and quickly put together a briefing paper. A bit of data led to a paper and to an argument about proper urban planning. Good researchers, like good communicators can keep themselves busy. They do not need travel expenses, workshops, libraries or even access to fast internet (although this helps). Give them some data (on a file or even a printout) and you’ll see them go at it finding relationships between variables, testing theories, coming up with new research questions, etc. (That is, good researchers will).

A lot of money is going straight into think tanks these days. But I feel that not enough is being done to support their work:

  • more should be done to make data available 
  • whether by funding independent surveys,
  • facilitating the publication of existing databases (why not put this as a condition for future aid?),
  • ensuring that NGOs (and think tanks and research projects in general) publish all the data they gather and use (after all, it is done with public funds), and/or
  • encouraging the private sector to do the same with their own databases.